Making a bad joke on Twitter shouldn’t be a criminal offense
I like to make jokes. In fact so deep is my love of comedy I’ve co-authored a couple of non-fiction humor books. I can see the funny side in most things, but I’m also able to self-censor. That is, if I think up a joke that someone may find genuinely offensive or upsetting, I will choose very carefully whether or not to say it or post it. I’ve learned over the years to think before speaking, although that doesn’t mean I’ll always do it.
Twitter is full of would-be comedians posting jokes and irreverent observations. Sometimes they’ll score a hit, other times a miss. When a joke occurs, they’ll rush to post it in an effort to impress their peers, and score retweets. The speed that Twitter operates at means people often don’t think before they post. When someone tweets something in bad taste, followers will pick up on it, and the sheer weight of disapproval will frequently lead to the removal of the offending missive and a swift apology.
Case in point: Shortly after last year’s devastating Japanese tsunami, Gilbert Gottfried tweeted, "I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, 'They'll be another one floating by any minute now.'" He lost some sponsorship as a result of the insensitive tweet, and issued an apology shortly afterwards.
We all make gaffes or have mental aberrations from time to time, and while Gottfried really should have known better, it was just a joke. A seriously unfunny joke, but nothing more.
This week there have been several Twitter related stories in the news that show how making ill-advised postings can lead to far more serious consequences.
In the United States, 19-year-old Kent State sophomore William Koberna was arrested for joking that he was going to shoot up his school which, in the wake of the Aurora, Colo. shooting, was a ridiculous thing to do. He’s now being charged for felony inducing panic and misdemeanor aggravated menacing.
In the United Kingdom, Paul Chambers was acquitted after being found guilty in 2010 of sending a "menacing electronic communication". In the tweet in question, he joked about blowing up an airport when it closed due to heavy snow, disrupting his travel plans.
A Derbyshire Tweeter who described soccer player Ashley Cole as a “choc ice” (street slang for being black on the outside and white on the inside) is apparently being investigated for racism and could face prison.
Today, also in the United Kingdom, a 17-year-old was arrested for sending an offensive tweet to British diver Tom Daley after the Olympian failed to secure a medal in the men's synchronized 10m platform diving event. The teen tweeter later apologized to 18-year-old Daley, but his account was closed and the police arrived shortly afterwards.
While I understand police forces everywhere have a duty to investigate racism and abuse in all its forms, surely common sense should come into play at some point? Let’s take the four above examples in turn.
William Koberna’s “joke” was unfunny and very badly timed. But unless he had a houseful of weaponry and a violent background, surely the loss of his Twitter account, a caution from the police and temporary suspension from Kent State would have been punishment enough?
Paul Chambers was arrested and found guilty for his tweet. He actually went to prison for it. Yet, his crime was to threaten to blow up an airport. An airport! Seriously, who has the means to do that? al-Qaeda potentially, but as an accountant Paul’s links were to Excel cells, not terrorist ones. When the police went to visit him, the absence of a living room full of C4 and whiteboards covered in airport blueprints should have been enough to tell them he wasn’t a credible terrorist threat. (Also, while I’m no expert on extremist behavior, from what I know people planning on committing atrocities on a massive scale, like blowing up an airport, don’t generally tweet their intentions beforehand.) A cancelled Twitter account and a slap on the wrist should have been the end of the matter.
Is calling Ashley Cole a “choc ice” really worth a police investigation? If you know anything about his career and private life, you’ll know he’s been called a lot worse over the years.
And the teen who sent an abusive tweet to an Olympic diver? He was upset that the UK had missed out on a medal and communicated his displeasure without thinking of the consequences -- partly because he’s clearly a moron, but also partly because he’s just 17 and boys of his age often lack maturity or sensitivity and sometimes say stupid things. After the London riots last year, a lot of kids found their similarly brainless tweets and Facebook updates getting them into more hot water than they could ever have possibly envisioned.
While I’m not suggesting we should turn a blind eye to idiots posting idiotic things, I am saying I think the punishment should always be proportionate. Name and shame them, ban them from Twitter, and issue an unofficial warning so they understand they’ve done something socially unacceptable. It’s not cheap to take someone to court or imprison them for any length of time, and while fiscal considerations should never interfere with justice, there’s genuinely no reason for incarcerating someone whose only crime has been to post something foolish on a social network.